Gemmayze 2.0

New faces are cooking up a revival

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Beirut’s traditional Gemmayze quarter is witnessing a hospitality renaissance. A quick walk (or a slow drive) down the newly-paved Rue Gouraud and its less populated cousin, the lower and parallel Rue Pasteur, reveals a changing landscape of restaurants and coffee shops, design and art spaces, modern boutiques, and offices—almost all of them new faces, save for a handful of Beirut institutions. Named after the lush gemmayze (sycamore) trees that once flourished there, the charming streets are lined with the traditional, low-rise architecture that now serves these new establishments.

Older readers (and this writer) still remember a nightlife boom in the area in the early 2000s. Bars, restaurants, and clubs mushroomed, causing nightmarish traffic and tensions with neighbors that eventually led to a migration to what is today widely considered the heart of Lebanon’s nightlife—Mar Mikhael. With that, Gemmayze was downgraded to a relatively sleepy little place with only a few surviving bars—Torino Express, Dragonfly, and, until very recently, Myu.

Myu was the first hospitality venue of Joe Mourani, who studied civil engineering and went to culinary school abroad before returning to his homeland. He later opened the rooftop lounge Stereokitchen and current hotspot Ballroom Blitz, and owns award-winning restaurants in California. Myu was wildly successful, iconic even—Mourani admits he did not expect it to get as big as it became. In 2018, after 12 years, it closed its doors to make way for something entirely different—an all-day cafe called Standard. “Change is always hard. It took me a while and was the hardest thing for me to bring down Myu,” he says. He did it simply because people were not coming as much as they  had been. Gemmayze was no longer a place to party, which is illustrative of the general shift in the area.

Caffeine culture

The new breed of much quieter concepts caters to local residents, an array of artists and hipsters, and foreigners looking for a traditional side of Beirut to visit and post on Instagram. Omar Jheir, owner of Sip, which faces the Saint Nicolas stairway, says millennials love not only his good coffee and chill vibe but also the Instagram-worthy aesthetic of the rustic-chic interior of what was once an upholstery shop.

Australian-born and bred, Jheir was one of the first to bring specialty coffee, popular abroad, to Gemmayze, in 2017. He welcomes similar coffee concepts in the neighborhood as it creates the kind of coffee culture he wants to nourish. Next door to Sip, Jheir is opening a 12-room boutique hotel aimed at a new breed of travelers, as well as a ground-level mediterranean restaurant and bar (the launch is set for spring).

Also on the street is a specialty coffee espresso bar called Bn—spelled using a latin letter “B” and an Arabic letter “N”—pronounced like the Arabic word for coffee beans—benn. Owner Nader Hamade also has a roastery a few steps off Gouraud, where coffee beans from various origins are processed and packaged for sale in the shop and other venues in the city.

Meanwhile, Mourani’s Standard serves quality food, coffee, and drinks with a side of Pink Floyd and other classics, just audible enough to set the tone for conversation. Both Standard and Sip welcome dogs in their outdoor areas.

Neo-Lebanese

Traditional flavors are still a major ingredient in the Gemmayze potluck. Among the new entrants is Em Ali, a bakery with healthy, home-made traditional options that also accommodate dietary needs through gluten-free saj bread. Em Ali, the woman after whom the bakery is named, began to sell her traditional goods at local markets in Beirut around 15 years ago and became so popular that she essentially became a brand. Businessman Rani Baraka, who has F&B experience in the Gulf, saw an opportunity, and together they opened the bakery on Gouraud in March 2018. He was not the only one who saw potential—Em Ali had been approached by several restaurateurs over the years, but settled on Baraka because she felt comfortable with him. Her children and sister also work in the restaurant.

Further down Gouraud lies Zimi, which means “dough” in Greek. The white and blue Mediterranean eatery has tables set around a large oven, and offers Levantine, Greek, Italian, Turkish, Spanish, and Serbian cuisine, with more to come. The sharing concept focuses on making good quality street food from around our shared sea. With creative chef Barbara Massaad at the helm, managing partner Ali Daoud opened the venture in October last year.

Asian invasion

Jheir, who lives in Gemmayze, observes that walking down Gouraud recently has felt like being in Chinatown. Asian food indeed seems to be on the rise.

Mitsu-Ya, a sushi restaurant that offers a traditional Japanese Omakase concept (a chef’s menu prepared by one of the partners, Executive Chef Mitsuteru Arai), continues to hold its own on Gouraud five years after opening. In fall 2018 the partners expanded with two new ventures, both within a 50 meter radius of Mitsu-Ya. Ramen-Ya serves Japanese-style noodle and soup dishes that are very popular abroad but not that common in Lebanon. At next-door Japanese grill Yakiniku—also a new concept in Lebanon—special grills from Japan were imported and installed into every table so that customers can cook their own meats and vegetables. Yakiniku is evidently popular with families, as children and adults alike love to get in on the action. Private rooms are also available for more intimate dining. The partners hope to open yet another venue soon, also in close vicinity.

Asian fast-food lovers, on the other hand, flock for a quick bite to Wok Box—a little noodle joint near the middle of Gouraud.

One of the three owners of Electric Bing Sutt, Lynn Lin, is from China. She came to Beirut a few years ago as a tourist and took a photo on Gemmayze’s Saint Nicholas stairs. Little did she know she would eventually own a venue right next to where that photo was taken. Business partner and wife of Beirut’s “startender” Jad Ballout, who regularly appears in world top bartender lists, Lin explains that bing sutt in Cantonese literally means ice room. She jokes that people are still confused about the name, calling it Electric Bing What? The popular Hong Kong concept is an Asian casual diner serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as tea, coffee, and drinks. She describes their Beirut version as a modern, designer take on that idea. With a large red neon sign that spells out the name of the bar in Chinese visible from the street through large windows—which also allow customers to connect with the outside—and edgy decor, much of which is imported from China, the place is the first of its kind in the market. It offers a fusion of Asian and Lebanese flavors in unique cocktails served in unusual vessels, like glassware in the shape of fish tails, and a selection of authentic Asian food.

International flavors

Among other newcomers on the streets are a few mexican restaurants—El Mexicano and the newer Salud. Vertical 33 wine bar, by a new Lebanese winery, serves local vino with tapas. Daoud credits the popular Swiss Butter, which serves hearty steak, chicken, and salmon, with bringing more action to Gemmayze. Meanwhile, Salted Bistro centers around their various salts, imported from around the world and used in different dishes.

Bars are still open in the area, but they keep it quiet outdoors. After a few years in the game, Cyrano, on the Mar Mikhael end of Pasteur, is ever-packed with regulars, even as storms rage and Beirut floods. Though it opens during the day, it is especially popular after sunset, with bartenders that have the ability to make even basic gin and tonics look impressive—they come garnished with dried citrus fruits and black peppercorns.

Not the real estate

The big question is why this sudden revival? It seems it is not a drop in rent prices. Everyone Executive spoke to for this article is renting their establishments. Though no one disclosed numbers, the rent does not seem to be dropping. Daoud suggests that, if anything, it is still on the rise. The general consensus is that commercial rent in Gemmayze is about the same as it is in comparable areas, like Mar Mikhael. One advantage of a Gemmayze location is that the spaces are generally on the main street and more visible. The disadvantage, compared to Mar Mikhael, is that there is less footfall in Gemmayze. Everyone agrees the problem with Gemmayze is that there is a lack of available spaces for rent—and the best ones go at a premium.

Much of the real estate in Gemmayze is still owned by churches. A few families own the rest. Patrick Cochrane of Ashrafieh’s Sursock-Cochrane clan was one of the first restauranteurs in the neighborhood, opening Gauche Caviare and Cloud 9 during the original Gemmayze boom. He still maintains Couqley French Bistro and other concepts there.

Competition and

keeping ‘em coming

Daoud was part of the management at both Gauche Caviare and Cloud 9, and opened Zimi where latter once stood. Having been in the industry for 20 years, and witnessing the transformations of Gemmayze, he observes that when he first got started in the neighborhood there were more clients, mostly because there were fewer places to go. He expresses concern that the flurry of new establishments will result in oversaturation.

Many people are curious to try new concepts, Daoud says, but there is such a frequency of new places opening that it takes regular customers quite some time to do the rounds of trying new venues before they come back. As such, it is harder to stay busy. He says that since Zimi is a new concept, people have now tried it out of curiosity, but adds that many will ultimately go back to their comfort zones—to places they have been going to for years. This is why, for him, it is vital to cultivate relationships with his clients.

All of the restaurateurs mention that being affordable is also a relevant factor for many clients these days, as are quality and customer service. Baraka serves late-night clients even after the doors are technically closed (experienced first-hand by this hungry writer on a Friday night).

Change is also good, they all say. At Electric Bing Sutt, the menu has already been updated once since the launch. Lin says this is important given how quickly the Lebanese get bored. Zimi is introducing new menu items this month.

The hospitality industry is also about the experience. Electric Bing Sutt is not only stocked with Asian alcohols like Korean soju, Japanese craft beers, and a selection of Asian whiskies, but these are served traditionally to create an authentic experience. Lin says they tell clients stories about the ingredients and serving methods to give them a broader cultural experience. In an effort to keep clients on their toes, the venue is regularly hosting award-winning guest bartenders, who add new flavors to the repertoire.

For most of these F&B professionals, it is ultimately about offering something unique to Beirut’s foodies. It is hardly a secret that the Lebanese love to jump on a bandwagon—sushi has been the national trend in Lebanon for a while. One of Mitsu-Ya’s owners, Alain Beyrouthy, jokes that even arguileh joints serve sushi now. Lin says that during their first week of operations curious passers-by peered in to ask if Electric Bing Sutt served sushi and left scratching their heads when they found out that it did not. Also that first week, she walked in one day to see “probably the entire Asian community in Beirut” sitting in her restaurant, after hearing something new had opened.

Perhaps Lebanon is now having a broader Asian moment, but for Lin, it is not really a moment. Her advice is not to follow trends at all: “Do what you believe in. You can copy recipes, but you can’t steal the soul [of the restaurant]. I’m Chinese —I cannot get more Asian.” Emphasising the need for more authenticity, she reveals that even though Electric Bing Sutt caters to a hipster crowd, they “don’t have anything with avocado—it’s not an Asian [ingredient].”

Dude, where do I put my car?

Naturally, many customers live and work in the area. Mourani, whose family has lived in Gemmayze for years, emphasises the importance of staying in harmony with neighbors, recalling the backlash in the early 2000s. For those coming from outside the quarter, there is a big parking issue.

Some establishments offer valet service as a solution, but everyone agrees that the lack of parking spaces is one of the biggest challenges in Gemmayze. Daoud observes, “People who come to Gemmayze come to specific places, unlike in Mar Mikhael, where you can just park and go anywhere or bar hop.” This has directly impacted his business and forced him to adapt: Zimi started with a no reservations policy but realized clients prefer to reserve, and the restaurant has since seen an improvement in business. Beyrouthy, too, says that their three venues attract clients from outside the area—many people specifically come to Gemmayze to eat at these restaurants.

Restaurants over bars

Daoud remarks that the good thing about restaurants—as opposed to bars—is that they have a longer life-span, provided they are managed properly. This is good for business because it makes sure the area lives longer as a destination. Neighbors do not have a problem with restaurants, as they are generally quiet, and instead become loyal customers.

On the whole, Lebanon’s slow economy is affecting business negatively. Em Ali’s Baraka says it is incredibly unpredictable—there is no pattern as to when and how many clients show up. While Lin is realistic about Lebanon’s economy, she also mentions that every market has its hardships. Lebanon’s challenges may be different than those of China, but this business is about navigating any terrain. Affirming that Electric Bing Sutt is here to stay, she says, “If you offer good quality, value, and something new, it’ll work.”

We have yet to see which of Gemmayze’s new faces will be tough enough to withstand the market of picky Lebanese eaters with increasingly lower purchasing power. Regardless, it ignites some hope to see the beautiful old neighborhood experiencing this revival, with brand-new concepts and revisited old favorites. Daoud believes that the eclectic offerings in Gemmayze complement each other and if new concepts and cuisines continue to launch in Beirut it can aid the economy and even put Lebanon on the international map as a culinary destination, rather than just a nightlife hotspot.

There is, however, one thing that still missing in Gemmayze, Em Ali’s Baraka notes. For all the cuisines represented, there is nowhere on Gouraud street that specializes in the ultimate Lebanese street food: falafel. Any takers?

Olga Habre is the Executive Life editor.

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